2012 ULI Asia Pacific Summit

Trying to clarify the importance and meaning of sustainability in regard to China’s urban building boom was the task put to developers and academics at a Friday panel closing out the Urban Land Institute’s three-day Asia Pacific Summit in Beijing last week.

Kim Harmer, vice president of Schneider Electric’s Asia Pacific buildings business, joined Zhi Yin, president of Tsinghua University’s Planning & Design Institute; Michelle Bai of Johnson Controls’ China Green Buildings Energy and Sustainability Advisory; and Christopher Martin, head of Asia for LaSalle Investment Management in a discussion led by Uwe Brandes, ULI’s senior vice president of initiatives.

“The issue of climate change requires us to make key choices and trade-offs for which there are no precedents,” Brandes said, setting the tone. “On top of all the unprecedented changes in China, climate change is changing business practices… Energy is a new performance metric—a manageable metric for design and operations and valuing property.”

To show just how much Johnson Controls’ clients are paying attention to energy, Bai shared a survey of 428 respondents across China whose answers show that developers, government organizations, and commercial building operators are placing increased the importance on energy efficiency.

A full 84 percent of the respondents—nearly three-quarters of whom were reached in high-density urban settings such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—said that energy management was “very important” to them, up from 79 percent who shared this view in a 2010 survey, Bai said.

A similar survey of respondents in the United States and Canada showed that concern about energy efficiency was on the rise in those markets, too, but rested at a lower 66 percent of respondents, Bai said.

In fact, in a list of six criteria considered at the planning stage, energy cost savings ranked number one in China, followed by increasing energy security, government policy, greenhouse gas reduction, government utility incentives, and, finally, enhanced brand or public image.

“Energy policy is a key driver of developers’ plans in China,” Bai said, noting that implementation of the nation’s increasingly green policies would be challenged by a lack of sufficient capital—both external and from the government—and insufficient technical expertise.

LandrethSustainability_1_351Bai said the areas in which China was fast making improvements included lighting, energy supply-and-demand management, and ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Harmer, of Schneider Electric of France, said he uses metrics and new technologies to monitor a building’s performance with the goal of linking sustainability with efficiency of process, a practice he is trying to implement in China.

Schneider encourages architects to join early in each development project with structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers to strive for marked improvements in staff efficiency and building performance.

“Forward-thinking companies are gathering all disciplines together from the start, with the design outcome in mind from the beginning,” Harmer said, noting pleasing results: cost benefits to all stakeholders, sustainability in energy management, and the optimization of individual technologies if they’re installed in a building in concert from the foundation up.

Looking at the buzz word “sustainable” from another angle, Professor Zhi laid out the case for a healthy mixed use of land in a development project for Deyang City, 37 miles (60 km) from Chengdu, the capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province.

To Zhi, sustainable means not just green, but also livable. He said future Chinese cities must cast off government control of how people live their lives and rely on a combination of the best of the West and traditional Chinese values.

“Many Chinese city governments rely on land sales for revenues, but we want to change that and develop a new model that will respect the needs of the local community,” said Zhi, whose Beijing campus is known as China’s MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

In Deyang, Zhi outlined high-density, low-rise residential properties that would encourage Chinese people of different socioeconomic means to live together in what he called a “multicultural and vibrant new urban life.”

Sichuan, China’s most-populous province, is home to many of the country’s ethnic minority groups. With China’s continued urbanization expected to add another 350 million farmers to city populations over the next 50 years, the province is a good place to test what true sustainability may mean.

“The mixed use which started in America can be translated into China,” said Zhi hopefully—as long as planners rely on a combination of high-tech building solutions with traditional elements of Chinese culture drawn from communal village living, he added.

Martin said that, as an investment manager, he could put aside emotional debates about the importance of being green or livable and look strictly at the numbers to inspire his managers to do the right thing.

“Philosophical debate is secondary to maximizing performance; if [buildings] run efficiently, then there’s less cost and more value,” Martin said. “Managers around the region all understand the bottom line.”

In order to compete and fully grasp how to strengthen that bottom line, Martin said one must fundamentally master the numbers of energy use.

“You must track and be able to understand and interpret your data. Sometimes you can’t control things, but if you don’t understand what you’ve got, there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You don’t build anything today that’s not green. You can’t afford not to. How green you are is the question.”

For additional coverage of the 2012 ULI Asia Pacific Summit see:
Developers Hone in on Asia Investment Opportunities

Focusing on Sustainable Development at ULI Summit in Beijing